America's Forgotten City

Cahokia was born with a bang and died of unknown causes.

If they ever build a Wal-Mart at Machu Picchu, I will think of Collinsville Road.

I'm standing at the center of what was once the greatest civilization between the deserts of Mexico and the North American Arctic—America's first city and arguably American Indians' finest achievement—and I just can't get past the four-lane gash that cuts through this historic site. Instead of imagining the thousands of people who once teemed on the grand plaza here, I keep returning to the fact that Cahokia Mounds in Illinois is one of only eight cultural World Heritage sites in the United States, and it's got a billboard for Joe's Carpet King smack in the middle of it.

But I suppose Cahokia is lucky. Less than ten miles to the west, the ancient Indian mounds that gave St. Louis the nickname Mound City in the 1800s were almost completely leveled by the turn of the century. Today only one survives, along with some photographs and a little dogleg road named Mound Street. The relentless development of the 20th century took its own toll on Cahokia: Horseradish farmers razed its second biggest mound for fill in 1931, and the site has variously been home to a gambling hall, a housing subdivision, an airfield, and (adding insult to injury) a pornographic drive-in. But most of its central features survived, and nearly all of those survivors are now protected. Cahokia Mounds may not be aesthetically pristine, but at 4,000 acres (2,200 of which are preserved as a state historic site), it is the largest archaeological site in the United States, and it has changed our picture of what Indian life was like on this continent before Europeans arrived.

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